Sunday, January 12, 2014

2013 Year in Review: Animated Films

Being a fan of animation is getting increasingly frustrating. The mainstream American animated films of the year were largely a disappointment. And the foreign films that get submitted for consideration at the Oscars basically do the bare minimum to qualify, and then maybe will release themselves wider next year, if they get nominated, and can use that as a marketing hook. There were 19 films submitted for the animated film Oscars this year.

Of those 19 films, I only saw nine. 10 of the 19 were mainstream American films – I saw 6 of those. If I missed anything good in The Smurfs 2, Free Birds, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 or Planes, than that’s on me I guess – but nothing I saw or heard made me think I needed to see them (I’ll probably catch up with Cloudy 2 – probably won’t catch the other ones any time soon)

That leaves nine other films that qualified – but none really released that widely this year. I was lucky enough to see The Wind Rises at TIFF this year – and also lucky that Ernest & Celestine was released on iTunes in Canada (albeit in the French version – which is fine by me), and to have a friend obsessed with anime, so they had an imported DVD of A Letter to Momo. I could have seen the Canadian film The Legend of Sarila – and if it somehow makes the cut for Oscars, I will watch it. Yet that still leaves six films I had no chance of seeing - O Apóstolo, The Fake, Khumba, Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie – Rebellion, Rio: 2096 A Story of Love and Fury – and most people were most likely not that lucky. I assume they all basically did a one week qualifying run, and then disappeared – hoping for a nomination. I find this sad, because I’m sure that at least some of these films are of a higher quality than many of the mainstream fare we got this year.

A lot of hand wringing and worrying has been done about the new rules for the animated film category. No longer do Academy members in the branch have to watch all the films in Academy sanctioned screenings – they can do so on screeners now – and the number of films you have to see has dropped – from 88% to 60%. This has many worried that the mainstream American films will simply dominate now – and perhaps that will be the case. I think many fans of animation were happy – like I was – to see less mainstream fare like Chico & Rita, The Secret of Kells, A Cat in Paris, Persepolis or the pair of films by Sylvain Chomet – The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist or Miyazaki – Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away (which actually won) get nominated in years past. And perhaps letting the branch see only what they want will eliminate those nominations – we’ll have to see. But if you want to look at a bright side to this, there is one – perhaps a few more films in the future will actually do a real release for their films – perhaps they’ll want the buzz that comes along with critics reviews and awards leading up to the nominations, and try to force themselves into the conversation. And perhaps fewer of these films will simply sit back and hope they get enough votes to get nominated before releasing themselves to the public. Because the sad truth is, very few non-traditional animated films, made outside of America, get any sort of release at all. And our film culture is poorer for that.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying I was thoroughly underwhelmed by the animation I saw this year. Even including a holdover from 2012 (one of those small films, like the group of nine above that qualified for last year’s Oscars but didn’t actually release until this year – and since it didn’t get nominated then, I don’t have a problem including it this year) there were only a few animated films to get excited about this year. Many thought last year was weak year last year – but it was an embarrassment of riches compared to this year.

The dullest animated film I saw this year was Epic (Chris Wedge) which looked okay, but told the most boring story imaginable in an animated film – even kids, hardly the most discerning of viewers, didn’t really like one. Turbo (David Soren) was marginally better – it was at least very fast paced and colorful, but it also felt slightly warmed over, and too by the numbers to be very good. Better still was The Croods (Kirk DiMicco & Chris Sanders) that at least added some inventive creatures to their caveman story, but once again the film seemed to be on autopilot. Certainly better than those films, if not exactly great was the biggest hit animation had this year - Despicable Me 2 (Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud) – which was mildly amusing, but didn’t come close to matching the charm of the original and felt like it was trying too hard. One of those smaller films that I did actually see was A Letter to Momo (Hiroyuki Okiura) – but it was mostly a disappointment – a kind of riff of Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Tortoro for slightly older kids that dragged on too long, despite fine animation.

And what are we supposed to do with two very different animated films – which didn’t even bother to submit themselves for the Oscars (and would probably be disqualified on a technicality anyway) where the animation is deliberately crude, but appropriate for their subject? I am referring to Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (Michel Gondry) in which the French filmmaker has a series of conversations with Noam Chomsky, and then adds some strange hand drawn animation to ensure the audience knows what they are seeing is somewhat artificial. Then there is An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terrance Nance) an animated/live action hybrid – an art film about the directors somewhat obsessive fixation on a past relationship. Neither film is great, but both use animation in completely unique ways.

Top 5

I know I’ve spent most of this segment talking about how disappointing animation was in 2013 – and I do believe that is true – but these five animated films were all quite good – and the top three would easily make my list in most years, so maybe things weren’t nearly as bad as they seemed.

5. Ernest & Celestine (Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar & Benjamin Renner)
A gentle, foreign film from France, it’s an adaptation of the long running Ernest & Celestine book series – telling how the surly, but generally good, bear Ernest and the naïve but lovable mouse Celestine met and became friends. Some will undoubtedly find the film a little slow – it does not contain a lot of action – but rather takes a leisurely stroll with these two characters – outcasts from their respective societies who have been taught to hate and fear each other, but who overcome those prejudices to form a true, lasting friendship. The film is probably best suited for younger children – there is nothing here that will scare them, and we haven’t taught them yet to be bored by a film that isn’t non-stop action, excitement and headache inducing colors. The simple visual look of the film is perfectly matched by the story.

4. From Up on Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki)
A holdover from last year’s Oscar race (it didn’t make the cut), Goro Miyazaki’s (son of Hayao) film From Up on Poppy Hill is a gentle, lovingly animated film about young love. The film takes place in the years after the Korean War – with the young heroine still missing her father, who was killed there. The plot involves a conflict at the high school from those who want to tear down the past, and those who want to preserve it – this time in the guise of an old clubhouse. Goro is not quite the director his father is – that’s not a criticism, no one is – but the film is as beautiful as many of his father’s film, and more grounded in reality. This is a sweet, gentle film – and yet it is also one haunted by war and death. Not the masterpiece Hayao Miyazaki usually makes, but a damn fine film in its own right.

3. Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee)
Disney has struggled to find its footing in animation since the end of the 1990s – making some really good movies, and some really bad ones. With Tangled a few back, they seemed to (mainly) be able to fuse their old school storytelling clichés with a more modern sensibility. I’m not convinced that Frozen is better than Tangled – but it’s another step in the right direction. This is a wonderful, breezy animated musical comedy about the love between two sisters who are Princesses. All the clichés you know and love from Disney movies are here – wonderful musical numbers, gorgeous animation, lovable animals, and a comic relief sidekick. Yet Disney also twists its own past in the film – especially in the way it deals with its two lead characters. The movie often seems like it’s about to indulge in an old, sexist cliché – and then flips it at the last second. I appreciated that. I also just had a lot of fun watching the movie. Disney has still not quite been able to recapture the magic of their classic films – but they’re getting close.

2. Monsters University (Don Scanlon)
Pixar has taken a lot of flak over the past few years (from me included) as it’s been a while since they made one of their absolute classics. Yes, for the third year in a row, the annual Pixar film does not rank among their very best – but that doesn’t mean that Monsters University is still not an absolute delight to watch. This film, a prequel to Monsters Inc., find Mike and Sully back in University going through “Scare School” – first as rivals, and eventually as allies and friends. The film was easily the most enjoyable of the mainstream animated films I saw this year – a well-crafted, often hilarious comedy with great voice work all around. There is no denying that Monsters University doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor – let alone Pixar’s best films like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E or Toy Story 3. But like last year’s Brave, just because it isn’t the best work the studio has ever done, that doesn’t mean it’s garbage either.

1. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki)
For his cinematic swan song, Hayao Miyazaki – who would get my vote for the best director of animation in history – has made one of his best films – and his least fantastical one. This time, Miyazaki has made an animated biopic of Jiro Horikoshi – the Japanese aviation engineer who designed many of the planes that the Japanese used in WWII. The film is about how this dreamer – who just wanted to create beautiful planes – gets used to make weapons of war – the price he has to pay to do what he loves. It is also a gentle love story between him and his often sickly wife. As with all of Miyazaki’s films, the animation is stunning and beautiful from start to finish – an earthquake and fire near the beginning is a highlight. Miyazaki’s film have been attacked from both the left and right in Asia – some calling it an apologia for a man who designed weapons of war, and some calling it’s pacifism “un-patriotic”. The fact that both sides are attacking him probably means he got the balance just right. This is head and shoulders above every other animated film of the year – a fitting send off to one of the great directors in history.

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